ANKARA - Turkish-backed rebels have seized the centre of Afrin city in northern Syria , Ankara said Sunday, as they made rapid gains in their campaign against Kurdish forces.
"Units of the Free Syrian Army, which are backed by Turkish armed forces, took control of the centre of Afrin this morning at 8:30am (0530 GMT)," said President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has vowed to oust Kurdish militia from areas along the Turkish border.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor of the country's war, said Turkish-led forces had made a lighting advance inside Afrin, taking control of half the Kurdish-majority city.
A civilian inside Afrin said that rebels had deployed in the city centre and that the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia had withdrawn.
Civilians hiding in basements could hear fighting outside and people shouting "God is greatest", one resident told AFP.
An AFP correspondent in the city said he heard explosions on Sunday morning.
The capture of Afrin would be a major victory in Ankara's campaign against the YPG, which Turkey considers a terrorist group.
Ankara launched Operation "Olive Branch" in Afrin two months ago, saying the area near the Turkish border needed to be secured and the YPG pushed out.
The advance has made steady gains and earlier this week Turkish-led forces largely surrounded Afrin city, leaving a single escape route open southwards to territory still held by the YPG or controlled by the Syrian regime.
At least 200,000 civilians had fled the city over the last week, the Observatory said.
Turkish jets and artillery have been battering Afrin for weeks and ground clashes intensified in recent days, raising fears for thousands of civilians trapped in street-to-street fighting.
At least 27 civilians were killed in Turkish bombing on Friday and Saturday, according to the Observatory, including 16 when a raid reportedly struck the main hospital in Afrin city on Friday. - APP /AFP